Sometimes what a documentary needs is a good old-fashioned narrator. Rachel Boynton’s Big Men, opening Friday, April 18 at Sundance Cinemas, is so crowded with places, names, facts and faces you need a spreadsheet to sort it all out, especially since the director is reluctant to give in to the prosaic option of employing a simple voiceover to help guide us along. It’s become something of a badge of honor for documentarians to make their films without the aid of an omniscient storyteller. I’m not sure this is due to smugness on their part or an inability to write a script. The result, in this case, is a worthy but exhausting film like Big Men. With subject matter too sprawling to express through the voices of its characters, it resorts to huge blocks of on-screen text to keep us oriented. You don’t so much watch this picture as read it.
Big Men is a complex account of a start-up oil company’s virginal venture into the geopolitical minefield of petroleum excavation. Shuttling back and forth from New York to Texas to Ghana to Nigeria, Boynton’s film is notable for its insider access to the moneyed side of the oil game. Other films (Crude, Sweet Crude) have focused more on the criminal, exploitive toll of big oil, but Big Men takes a less judgmental, though sometimes awkward approach.
Boynton manages to humanize the men, and they are all men, within Kosmos, the small oil company lucky enough to discover a mother lode of petroleum off Ghana’s coast. She thoroughly chronicles their subsequent lengthy and frustrating negotiations with the country’s government to ensure that everyone, including the so-called “people of Ghana”, gets his or her fair share of the economic spoils. But Boynton's even-handed questioning of the oil millionaires and their Wall Street investors is almost too polite, an inevitable result of not wanting to lose the access she’s been granted. She makes a few forays into Nigeria where she tags along with rebels who disrupt oil production there, but these scenes, while exotic and invigorating, also feel like self-conscious crumbs thrown to the MoveOn.org members of the audience which is, frankly, probably her only audience.
The movie took 7 years and more than one million dollars, a huge expenditure of time and money within the revenue-challenged world of documentary filmmaking. As a documentary filmmaker myself I’m not only jealous of Boynton's budget but also a bit mystified. I could have made five films with that kind of cash.
Big Men’s swirl of locations and knotty interpretation of the issues required a protracted, expensive investment of her time. Or did they? All the money spent in service of Boynton’s good intentions can’t make reasonable sense out of the overwhelming amount of information she stuffs onto the screen. The acronyms begin to pile up along with the multiple characters, whose motivations tend to blur along with the filmmaker’s. Her admission into the tycoons’ boardroom allows a unique vantage point, but the results are not exactly revelatory. The story ends the same way it began: The rich get richer, the poor trade in their guns for an amnesty they’ll never trust and the oil continues to surge beneath the earth’s oceans and countries, ripe for the taking.